Greta Thunberg World Economic Forum

What Did We Learn From the World Economic Forum?

Every year, powerful figures from around the world gather in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss how to make the world a better place. 2020 was no different, but what did we learn?

The hit HBO show Succession featured an episode in its last season called ‘Argestes’. It was a media-focused gathering of billionaires and big wigs in a beautiful retreat in Lake Placid, New York. The event is an opportunity for people completely divorced from reality to have a platform (as if they needed any more platforms) to spout off about what their companies are doing, where they’re improving, their innovations and the like. They do this in total luxury. Sound familiar?

The World Economic Forum, which took place last month and is more commonly referred to by the town it takes place in, Davos, is an annual meeting of Bond villains in the Swiss Alps. Business leaders, political leaders, journos, celebs—all the big hitters, basically—convene over the course of five or so days and shoot the shit. Up until fairly recently it has been a bit of a MySpace wall for CEOs to tell the world about the totally rad stuff they’re doing.

These days, though, the pressure is well and truly on. The Miley Cyrus of the ozone, Greta Thunberg, is a new favourite, quietly telling everyone that they’re not doing enough (which they aren’t), and it adds to a greater sense of theatre than before. Last year the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman also put one up them, heavily criticising billionaires and their companies for not paying their fair share in taxes. The feel good back-slapping of yore has, like a melted Antarctic glacier, disappeared forever.

 So we broke down the bullshit and took the key points from this year’s event, 500 talks and panels condensed into a mere five points. Is it even possible? Let’s find out!

Let's be real: Are big companies actually going to stop killing the planet?

Naturally, the issue of climate change and global warming was the primary concern of most panels and talks. Calls to action aimed at government and business abounded. 

“Five years after the Paris Accord, governments need to reset their goals and businesses are finally and quickly talking about setting goals,” said Rebecca Blumstein, deputy managing editor of The New York Times, and moderator of the ‘Averting a Climate Apocalypse’ panel, which featured Thunberg. “We have top voices from across the world to discuss the urgency of the situation and next steps.”

Jun Ma, the director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs in China, said: “China’s emissions [goals] have not been accomplished. We’re still burning half of the world’s coal. We need to do more. But now, at this moment, we’re facing the economic downturn locally and globally. We’re facing the [trade] war and also the withdrawal by the U.S. government from the Paris agreement. All these are not helpful.”

Laura Kelly, Director of Shaping Sustainable Markets at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), thinks positive change is possible, and likely, but there will be some sticks in the mud.

“The fossil fuel companies: that's going to be the really hard nut to crack, the really high intensive carbon industries construction extractives,” she tells me over the phone. “I think that's where, you know, some of the other kinds of government policy, and consumer behaviour, matters to investors too. I think they've got a really important role as well.”

Is activism an effective enough way to enforce change in business?

Activism and, by extension, activists, are now part of the furniture at Davos. Greta Thunberg is something of a headline act at the convention, the Iron Maiden to the WEF’s Download Festival. 

As we mentioned earlier, Thunberg, stowing away her righteous firebrand for a moment and eliciting more of a disappointed mum at parent’s evening vibe, saying: “Before coming here we had some demands for this WEF, and, of course, those demands have been completely ignored. But we expected nothing less.”

She was also asked about US president Donald Trump’s comments regarding climate activism (i.e, they’re doom sayers who are trying to unnecessarily bum everyone out) and whether his personal attacks have any effect on her.

“Of course, they have no effect,” she replied. “We are being criticised like that all the time and… if we would care about that they wouldn’t be able to do what we do.” 

There’s belligerence not only from Donald Trump but also people like the Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser. The company has been criticised and protested, by Extinction Rebellion and others, because of their supplying of signalling equipment to a company transporting workers and equipment via train to a controversial new coal mine in Australia. The protests, he says, have had no effect. 

The fossil fuel companies: that's going to be the really hard nut to crack

“The impact is zero,” he told Market Watch. “There has not been any movement on the share price. Reputational impact is there, and we need to educate and inform the general public about what the facts are and how we deal with them.”

So is this activism really making tangible change? Laura Kelly seems to think so.

“It’s an important part of the toolbox to help us with reduce carbon emissions, so we actually end up with no higher than a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in global temperatures. A company that manages lots of pension for councils in South West England want to climate proof their portfolios, and divest from carbon intensive industries, investing more in sort of renewables, low carbon and so on.”

“The older people that are in the movement, they might be vegetarian, they might use green energy suppliers, and be actually pressuring their pension provider to look at what’s in their portfolio. That’s a really nice link into activism.”

Is population control as big of an issue as some like to think?

Conservationist Jane Goodall came under fire on social media for asserting that a rise in global population was an unavoidable aspect of the problems the world faces today. It’s an idea she has expressed before. 

“We cannot hide away from human population growth,” she said. “Because it underlies so many of the other problems. All these things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if the population was the size it was 500 years ago.” 

Many, however, say that this idea is bogus. According to Oxfam, the poorest half of the global population are responsible for only 10% of emissions, whereas the richest 10% are responsible for 50 per cent. Some argue that it is also racialised.

For Laura, it’s a bit of both. 

“Climate change is happening now,” she says. “Population growth is about something in the future. The climate crisis is something that we need sort out now. There's a human element to that you know, flying less, thinking about what we need to eat and drink. There’s an element of free-rider syndrome in there as well.”

“Getting businesses to hold themselves to account and being publicly held to account - these are the kinds of things that we need to think about doing now rather than talking about what's going to happen with population growth.”

It’s been fun, Davos. See you next year, if we’re all still alive!